Salt and Seed
A Review of "The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life"
The effects of this radical individualism on the authors' worldview are subtle but significant. Consider their discussion of the notion of "giftedness," one of the highlights of the book and a dazzling performance of the authors' abilities with language and image. In a discussion of autumn's show of "stained glass pendants," they write
Their scarlet, ochre, and golden colors emerge as chlorophyll production shuts down, in preparation for sacrificing the leaves that are vulnerable to winter cold, and ensuring the survival of the tree. But the tree survives, while our vision is ravished. The peacock's display attracts a hen, and it nourishes the human eye. The flower's fragrance entices a pollinator, but it also intoxicates the gardener. In that "while," in that "and," in that "but it also," we find the giftedness of life. (36)
In other words, God has designed nature not only for utilitarian functionality, but as a gift to humankind to delight and satisfy our senses. The "giftedness" of the universe is manifest in its unique capacity to fulfill human longing. Compare this idea of giftedness to something like "givenness," a notion that Mormon thinkers like Adam Miller invoke in similar discussions of grace. At first glance giftedness and givenness (not to be confused with Givenses) appear to be twins, but under the surface they are opposites. Givenness describes the condition of the universe God gives us, yes, but it is also "given" in the sense that it remains constant, unmoved by our personal desires, longings, or satisfactions; indeed it is grace-full to the extent that it refuses our categories and thus releases us from a skull-sized prison of limited personal perspectives that would otherwise keep us from really seeing the world. In a universe of giftedness, the realization of our deepest desires is the measure of the gift. That is a good universe to live in. In a universe of givenness, the denial of our deepest desires is the measure of the given. That is also a good universe.
In the end, it is probably mostly a matter of sensibility whether one resonates to a world of giftedness or to a world of givenness, whether one feels imprisoned by the weakness of the will or the by the strength of the will. But because the book works mostly at the level of sensibility rather than argument or evidence (and to be fair, it's hard to imagine how it could be otherwise), it leaves readers like me at a bit of a loss to respond beyond simply saying "That's not how it feels to me." Perhaps the better question is not whether The God Who Weeps is deeply right or deeply wrong, but whether it is deeply Mormon.
To this question the answer is unequivocally "yes." It is not a comprehensive or even a representative treatment; to be that it would, for starters, have to add an additional chapter substituting "obedience" for every instance of "belief" or "faith." (Try reading the book's introduction with this substitution: it works surprisingly well!) Nevertheless, the book drills down to bedrock Mormon scripture, it finds Mormonism's best gifts to Christianity and highlights its most humane and moving images and narratives.
Indeed, the book's Mormon character goes much deeper than the themes it expresses with such brio. One way of understanding Mormonism is as a kind of sacralizing tool, a cultural urim and thummim: a system of ideas capable of importing ordinary selves and stories from a host culture, twisting a thread of gold through each, and re-weaving them back into the sacred fabric of the cosmos. In this sense, The God Who Weeps is an enactment of Mormonism itself, a virtuoso performance in making religion for the 21st century. This is religion that makes itself relevant in a comprehensible universe fully surrendered to science; religion for a culture in which religious claims are contested but the authority of personal choice is taken for granted; religion for Heavenly Parents with a copy of Love & Logic on their bedside table; religion for humans who enjoy an historically unprecedented degree of personal autonomy and efficacy over their daily destinies.
Any quarrel I have with The God Who Weeps is at root probably a quarrel with the world for which—and from which—it makes religion. It's hardly fair to hold the authors responsible for that. In fact, I can't think of anybody better suited than Fiona and Terryl Givens for the task. Their book, however different in sensibility from mine, is infused with their personal generosity, compassion, intelligence, and optimism. The worldview it describes—lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy—is one of the good fruits of Mormonism.
Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar who makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children.